‘The Catacomb’ by Peter Shilston hits that
perfect sweet spot of mine for blasphemous horror. In ‘The Catacomb’ Shilston tells the tale of a Mr. Pearsall who is coming to the end of his bus tour through Sicily. When a passenger is sick and the bus needs to stop in a small town for a short rest stop Mr. Pearsall decides to find and explore an old church he saw while passing through the town. What he finds is not at all what he expected.
The story is told second hand so we know Mr. Pearsall makes it out alive to tell his tale to the narrator. It starts out poking a bit of fun at the protagonist. The narrator says “He was a mild-tempered man, but if there was one thing that caused him irritation, it was suddenly finding himself with nothing whatsoever to do when he had expected to be occupied.” Pearsall believes he knows better than the tour guides regarding his own safety and goes off alone in the town. Though he does seem like a ‘mild-tempered’ fellow he’s breaking the taboos and in the world of horror, this makes him fair game.
Shilston used a wonderful technique that I like to call the ‘focusing effect’ in this story. As Mr. Pearsall examines the inside of the church we’re introduced to details about the architecture and mosaics. Pearsall hits the second level of detail in describing the mosaics and is able to explain away the oddness as being related to the Capuchins or Cathars. This leads him to focus even further into the detailing as he’s gone even deeper into the church, at that point, he is surrounded. I have to say, this story reminded me of the very first section of ‘Sticks’ by Wagner. Great minds think alike mayhaps?
The story originally appeared in the second issue of the M. R. James periodical Ghosts & Scholars, titled More Ghosts & Scholars and edited by Rosemary Pardoe. I previously discussed Rosemary Pardoe and Ghosts & Scholars in YBHS VIII: ‘A Serious Call’ by George Hay. At the time the story was written, Peter Shilston was a history professor. He has since retired but still regularly posts on history, literature, and his memories on his blog here. I appreciated his history knowledge and attention to detail. As noted by Shilston in Wagner’s introduction “The town and cathedral represent Cefalu…”. Shilston describes the outside of the cathedral as similair to the one in Cefalu but when describing the interior he says “…this church had not been revamped later on in the Baroque period. There was not a Corinthian pilaster to be seen.” A little specific detail like that lets us know how forgotten and secluded this cathedral is. Wagner adds his own interjection about Cefalu reminding the reader it was also the site of Aleister Crowley’s Abbey of Thelema.
Next: ‘Black Man With A Horn’ by T. E. D. Klein